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Apr. 13—The abuse that has led to the deaths of several Maine children is driving legislation at the State House to create a new cabinet-level department in state government with the sole task of protecting kids from suffering and neglect.
The legislation, sponsored by Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, would remove the Office of Children and Family Services from the Department of Health and Human Services, and establish a new state department, with a commissioner to be nominated by the governor and confirmed by the state Senate.
Diamond's proposal is one of several bills that lawmakers on the Health and Human Services Committee have considered this week aimed at improving the handling of child protection within DHHS.
In testimony Tuesday before the committee, Diamond pointed to the deaths by abuse of at least five children, dating back to the killing of 5-year-old Logan Marr in 2001.
Marr was found dead after she had been duct taped to a high chair and left in the basement of her foster mother's home, Diamond noted.
He also cited the more recent slayings of Kendall Chick and Marissa Kennedy. The deaths of Chick, 4, in 2017 and Kennedy, 10, in 2018, shocked and saddened the state while again exposing flaws in Maine's system for protecting children, Diamond said.
"I guarantee that when the next child is murdered or dies, God forbid that happening, because of neglect or abuse we all, of course, will feel terrible and pledge to fix the problem. Because that's what we do," Diamond said.
Following Chick's death it was revealed child welfare officials had closed her case just 10 months earlier. In Kennedy's death a review of documents revealed child welfare officials were aware of concerns for the girl's safety yet failed to act.
"I attended all three of those trials and their sentencing hearings as well," Diamond said. "What became
painfully obvious throughout the trials were the failures of the very agencies that were supposed to protect these children and instead failed them, resulting in their deaths."
Diamond said the tragic deaths could have been avoided but they represented a failure of the structure of state government rather than the fault of any one state worker or official.
"The (Office of Children and Family Services) needs to rise to the level of an independent agency separate from DHHS," Diamond said. "Simply put, the department is so large and complex and has so many serious challenges that it cannot properly oversee the many needs of the OCFS, at least to the level required to fully protect children in their care."
DHHS filed written testimony opposing the bill, in a letter from Todd Landry, director of the department's Office of Child and Family Services.
"While the structure this bill proposes would likely bring more attention to the vital activities related to child and family services, the costs and drawbacks outweigh any benefits that might be derived from this change," Landry wrote.
He said the bill doesn't take into account the complexity of redirecting funding streams for child-related programs, nor does it incorporate other state programs that support children into the proposed new department.
Some lawmakers on the committee seemed skeptical about peeling apart DHHS. "I really appreciate the fact that you want to address the problem," Sen. Joe Baldacci, D-Bangor, told Diamond. "I'm just not sure the bill is the way to go."
Baldacci asked if Diamond would be open to a commission to review and propose changes to DHHS.
"I would welcome anything," Diamond said. "Anything you can do."
But others who testified in support of the bill said there needed to be a department with a singular focus was on child welfare and safety. "Maine's children's systems are fragmented, even with the Department of Health and Human Services the overall work of assisting children can be uncoordinated," said Nancy Cronin, the executive director of the Maine Developmental Disability Council.
"Creating a new department where children are central would and could mean improved coordination and that (fewer) children would get overcomplicated services," Cronin said. "Having a children's department, a cabinet level children's department might be the best opportunity to really focus on kids and have somebody look at kids from an overall systemic point of view and stop some of the sad things that are happening."
Christine Alberi, the state's child welfare ombudsman, offered testimony neither for nor against the bill but did encourage the committee to consider "careful passage." Alberi's office is an independent agency that has access to child protective records in order to help resolve concerns and complaints involving Child Protective Services.
"In general, the ombudsman's office is in favor of any additional resources and help that can be directed towards child welfare," Alberi said.
She noted that the children involved in state services made up a small portion of all the children in Maine.
"But they deserve a larger share of our attention," Alberi said. "Any child that enters state custody deserves the best that we can offer for every moment that we care for that child."
Diamond's bill will be the subject of future work sessions before the committee in the weeks ahead.
On Monday, the committee also worked on a series of bills also aimed at better protecting children, including measures that set up an early intervention and prevention program within DHHS and improve communications between entities tasked with protecting children. The committee has yet to vote on whether to recommend passage of those measures.